Group calls on Trenton to fix 'broken system' of death benefit claims

| 03 Aug 2017 | 02:16

By Joseph Picard
— An independent group of first responders, their families and allies, has sent a letter to Gov. Christie and numerous high-ranking state officials, demanding action be taken on behalf of the families of fallen Emergency Medical Services volunteers, who have been stymied in attempts to collect the Workers’ Compensation death benefit.
The Committee for Justice for Bill and Scott formed earlier this year in response to the delays and other difficulties the families of two fallen EMS practitioners from Sussex County, Bill Martin and Scott Danielson, are facing in trying to collect from insurance companies on the death benefit due under the state’s Workers’ Compensation Law.
The group has promised from inception to bring the matter to the attention of state officials and on Friday made good on that promise.
“Workmen’s Compensation for first responder LODD (line of duty death), particularly of first responder volunteers, is a broken system,” the letter said. “There is no logical excuse for these cases to be taking years to wend through such a defective system. The current system enables insurance firms to badger and bully vulnerable widows and survivors.”
The letter invoked “a moral imperative to first investigate and then fix the system.”
The letter is signed by 12 members of the committee, all of them long-time EMS veterans and leaders, including two of Scott Danielson's brothers -- Eric Danielson, the Chief of Police of Andover Township and Lt. Kevin Danielson who is with the Clifton Fire Department and mustering support for the effort among firefighters -- Sussex County Freehold Carl Lazzaro and Nicole Shields, a nurse and the widow of Thomas Shields, a 42-year-old fire/rescue first responder from Mount Olive who died in the line of duty in May 2011.
The Shields’ case is one of four the group cites in the letter as examples of insurers using “delaying tactics” to game the system with impunity. The other cases:
Bill Martin, 56, was a volunteer for 23 years with Stillwater Emergency Rescue. On Jan. 8, 2013, Martin and other volunteers responded to a house fire where one resident died and the other was severely burned. Martin drove the ambulance carrying the critical survivor to a Medevac landing, whence he was to be helicoptered to a hospital burn unit. En route to the landing, Martin suffered a heart attack. The burn victim made it to the hospital, but Martin did not survive.
Three years later, on January 16, 2016, Scott Danielson, 49, a 35-year volunteer at the Lakeland Emergency Squad, responded to a car accident on Route 206 in Byram. He learned, while on the way, that one of the victims was his daughter, Alycia. He treated his daughter at the scene and followed the ambulance to the hospital, where he collapsed. Despite emergency care for cardiac arrest, Danielson died without regaining consciousness.
In September 2014, Byram Township Fire Department 24-year volunteer Firefighter Richard L. Choate responded to a fire call driving one of three engines in response to the scene. On return to the fire station, he indicated he was exhausted and headed home. Within about an hour, Firefighter Choate was found in cardiac arrest in his car which had come to a non-collision stop alongside a road near his home. Despite basic and advanced cardiac life support, Firefighter Choate died in the emergency room at Newton Medical Center.
In the case of the Shields family, Nicole Shields accepted an insurance company settlement offer. According to the committee’s letter, which she signed, “she endured over six years of well-documented delaying tactics by the insurance carrier facilitated by ‘the system.’ She reluctantly accepted a paltry settlement after the six years. “
Choate’s widow, Audrey Choate, learned of the delay in the Shields’ case and choose not to file a death benefit claim.
Both Tammy Danielson and Teri Martin have been pursuing their claims. Each has turned down a settlement offer from their insurer. Tammy Danielson told Straus news in an earlier interview that the offer, for the rest of her life, amounted to less than her husband made in a year.
“It’s like the insurance drags it out as long as possible, thinking you’ll get frustrated and settle for some inadequate amount,” she said.
The committee wants legislative action to amend the Workers’ Compensation Law and set limits on how long an insurer can dispute and otherwise delay a death benefit claim. Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Sussex) is onboard with trying to amend the law.
“I’ve been a first responder myself for over 20 years,” Space said in a previous interview. “I know the family’s expectation if something bad happens, and I’ve seen what has happened. I’ve told the group that I will do whatever I can to get this law modified.”
Eskil “Skip” Danielson, the father of Scott and Eric Danielson, and a former Byram police chief and township mayor, is spearheading the effort to make things right for the surviving families. He said, in addition to Space, the other five state legislators from the 24th and 25th districts are backing the committee’s efforts.
The committee is also asking government officials to investigate the insurers’ “delaying tactics” and what the letter calls “questionable collusive networking.” The group said that, according to “preliminary indications,” the families of fallen professional first responders who belong to unions, like police officers and firefighters, do not face such delays in collecting on death benefit claims.
“If these volunteers had a strong union like the police do, the insurance companies would not have dared to delay benefits,” Skip Danielson said.
Danielson said the letter arrived at the various government offices on Friday, July 28. Requests for comment to the insurance carriers handling the Damnielson and Miller claims received no response by midday Wednesday. State offices referred the matter to the Department of Labor. Officials at that department are aware of the letter and promised a public response if appropriate.
After this article was originally published, one of the insurance companies, Statewide Insurance Fund, reponded to the request for comment in a lengthy letter,
"While the Statewide Insurance Fund is extremely sympathetic to any family that loses a member," the letter read in part, "it believes that the Committee and the families are not fully aware of the many facts relating to workers’ compensation claims and therefore improperly blaming “insurance carriers” and others for their frustration with the system."
The enire letter can be read here: